Autism Series – Echolalia

by beagooddad on July 30, 2007

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There is nothing about Pookie that confuses and amazes me more than his echolalia. It is by far the aspect of autism that I was least prepared to handle since I had never heard of it. I’m not the only person completely ignorant either. When I sat on the panel discussing autism with teachers from the school district, the first question that the teachers asked me when we broke out into the small groups is, “So, what is echolalia?”

Here is a definition since I’m sure not everybody reading this will know either:

Echolalia is the repetition or echoing of verbal utterances made by another person. According to Prizant (1983) up to 75% of verbal persons with autism exhibit echolalia in some form

Pookie very definitely has echolalia.

There are two types of echlalia; immediate and delayed.

For the purposes of this post, we won’t go much into all of the sub categories that start to tackle the various purposes of each type of echolalia. The article in the link above has some more information if you are interested.

Immediate Echolalia

Immediate echolalia involves Pookie hearing something and repeating it back. When we ask him something like, “Do you want to go to the store?” it is common to hear “Do you want to go to the store?” complete with the questioning inflection in reply.

Another common occurrence is to say, “Do you want to eat candy? Yes or no.” That will often result in a “No” when in reality he really wants to say “Yes” but “No” was the last thing he heard.

Delayed Echolalia

Delayed echolalia involves repeating things they have heard after a period of time has passed. Quoting TV shows, songs, books, common phrases we use around the house are all examples of delayed echolalia. They normally occur seemingly without any reason. We can be sitting at the table and hear a five minute segment of Muppet Babies or standing in line at the bank and her a rousing rendition of Veggie Tale’s “Modern Major General” song where he only knows 1/4 of the words and just mumbles the rest in time with the tune.

Delayed echolalia is not truly always without context, though. Sometimes there is quite a concrete reason why a phrase is being used. I will go into the subcategories enough to mention that delayed echolalia is often broken down into Functional and Nonfunctional or Communicative and Noncommunicative depending on who you are reading. For some reason I prefer the prior ones.

Nonfunctional Echolalia

When Pookie gets stressed or excited or disturbed and can’t quite figure out what he wants to do about it, he is guaranteed to start doing delayed, nonfunctional echolalia. Songs, books, TV shows that just pour out of his mouth and it is hard to get him to make eye contact or talk about anything else to help him calm down. During this delayed, nonfunctional echolalia is the only time where I really feel like Pookie is in his own world. There is very little you can do to break through during these moments. The two things that often work are removing him from the stimulus. That could mean taking him to a quieter place or changing a potty accident or getting Geetle to give back a toy or sitting down and giving him a big bear hug.

Functional Echolalia

This is the fascinating part of the echolalia. Sometimes Pookie walking up to you and saying, “We had a good time at the beach. Just grandma and me” actually means something. It is a line from the Little Critter Just Grandma & Me book. Actually, he is specifically referencing the Living Books CD-ROM version of the story. A lot of times when we hear that line, he has either heard that we are going swimming or has decided that he really wants to go swimming. He equates the beach images and dialogue from that story with swimming and somehow that line from the story frequently comes out when he wants to go swimming.

On the less fun side, when Pookie is not getting his way about something, he will often say, “No more Goofy” because he equates me and BeAGoodMom saying that without having a miserable time because it is always a miserable time when the Goofy cartoon gets turned off even though I can’t even remember the last time we watched that video.

How Do You Stop Echolalia?

People frequently find this site by looking for that phrase. The short answer is you don’t. From everything that I’ve read, Pookie will either “grow out of it” or learn to control it enough that it doesn’t happen accidentally accept when he lets it. Apparently a form of echolalia is common in all childrens’ language development. Autistic children tend to go through the phase much longer. But most verbal autistic people seem to grow out of it as their language skills improve. It just takes time and patience. The emphasis on getting past echolalia involves working on improving functional language as opposed to trying to get the kid to stop talking when everybody is praying at church.

It seems like the amount of real delayed, functional echolalia and immediate echolalia is decreasing a little bit with Pookie. Instead he is starting to answer questions with real answers so he doesn’t need to use the functional echolalia as much. Before swim class tonight, we asked Pookie what the name of his swim teacher is. He has seen this teacher less than 5 times. He thought about it a second and rattled off her name. I was impressed considering I couldn’t even remember it.

He still uses the functional and immediate echolalia but if he knows the more appropriate answer he is starting to use that instead.

Sometimes It Is Just Fun

I’m convinced that sometimes he will quote some story just because it is fun to hear the story. I’m sure he can see all the pictures in his head, so it is probably as good as reading the book. I read a post a while back by an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome who said that when he is in public, he keeps the echolalia under control but when he is alone at home he doesn’t bother since it feels good to hear his voice and let the words just come out. It seems like Pookie does a fair amount of that.

That is the basics of echolalia in our house. We haven’t really had much look with trying to join in on the echolalic conversations so we don’t really try that often anymore. We do often try to get him to enter our conversation while he is busy with some story script. Sometimes he is in the mood, sometimes he isn’t.

One thing is for sure. Between him and his sister, somebody is always talking during the day.

I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention this. MOM – Not Otherwise Specified has a post about her son’s echolalia that I happened to find when I was having trouble figuring out what to think about Pookie’s echolalia. It is probably also the single post most responsible for me starting this blog. It is called “Dr. Strangetalk or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Echolalia.” Go read it. It is an amazing post.

Next in this series, we are going to talk about teaching an autistic child to sleep. For a full list of everything planned for this series on autism, the topics and links for the post already written can be found on the intro post.

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